ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
Oh, the internet. And the lingo—and dregs—of the internet. Trolls. Flame wars. Click-baiting.
Recently, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about the value of social media. I’m normally the pro-internet person, pointing out the powers of the web for organizing and spreading messages and disrupting mainstream media narratives. I like to quote Opal Tometi, co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who says, “We organize online to have impact on our lives offline.”
Often, the people I’ve talked to have their reasons for being anti-social media. Facebook is a time suck. Online organizing is “armchair activism,” with people using it as a substitute for actually showing up in the streets. Virtual engagements are taking the place of face-to-face friendships.
And I get it. But usually I still defend the great interwebs.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering. Is it worth it? Namely, is it worth it to continue to engage in activism online? Are we making a difference? When does our effort make a difference?
I still remember when the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in Ferguson happened. Being from South Carolina originally, my news feed on Facebook was flooded with racist vitriol from conservative people I was still “friends” with from my high school days. I started unfriending them, sick of seeing such hurtful posts. And then, lo and behold, this article popped up, posted by one of my activist friends: “Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson.” The author urged, “Dear white allies, this is not the time to ‘unfriend.’ This is the time to ‘engage.’” My partner, looking over my shoulder, chortled. “So, what are you going to do now?”
It’s a good question. What am I going to do? What are we going to do? When is it worth it to engage someone in the faceless, virtual space of the internet where people feel far more comfortable to espouse things they might not say (as bluntly, at least), in real life? And will my engagement really change people’s minds?
I’ve been weighing these decisions a lot recently in my social media encounters. Sometimes when I see things, I’m tempted to go in, social justice warrior sword swinging. I’ve given in a few times, like when I saw someone from high school commenting with anti-gay sentiments on an article a friend had posted, and I jumped in there, fresh from my Introduction to the New Testament grad school class and armed with information on mistranslations of Paul and Jesus’ attitude toward many of the laws of Leviticus (see: washing hands before eating and keeping kosher—or not, in Jesus’ case). Or when another acquaintance from high school posted this distasteful article from The Blaze, “Fast Food Workers: You Don’t Deserve $15 an Hour to Flip Burgers, and That’s OK,” and I couldn’t resist from a long comment that included, “I’m disgusted by the cavalier way this article looks at food service workers. I’m sorry that the job isn’t glamorous enough for the author, but the truth is that our society–and our economy–relies on so-called menial jobs like this. Food service. Cleaning services. Manual labor jobs. The whole idea of ‘follow your dreams and do a job that fulfills your passion’ is an extremely middle class narrative.”
Those comments, I’ll admit, are quite satisfying when you click the “Post” button. But often, they devolve into the dreaded comment wars, with the people you’ve just contradicted coming back for further battle.
There’s got to be a better way. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I just finished up a semester of a class called “The Way of Radical Compassion,” taught by the amazing Frank Rogers. We engaged in many types of spiritual practices for engaging compassion, but most powerful for me was Frank’s practice itself, the Compassion Practice, in its six steps:
- Paying Attention
- Understanding Empathetically
- Loving with connection
- Sensing the sacred
- Embodying new life
We are to engage in these steps both looking inward, at ourselves, and outward, meditating on others (especially “difficult others”). This class was immensely powerful for me.
I also recently read this article: “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” As opposed to the “call-out” culture that activism often has, “call-in” culture is described as “a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.”
So. Compassion. And calling in, rather than calling out. How do we do that in the deep and broad and often-anonymous land of the internet? How do we hold to our values and engage in ways that building connections and understandings, rather than seeing “others” as the enemy—someone to be defeated with more eloquent sentences and better statistics?
A couple of days ago, I posted about a recent interfaith gathering held by the Unitarian Universalist Association, my religious movement’s national organization. The gathering consisted of all men, and I was disappointed about that. I wrote that I was disappointed that the UUA had not found any women to attend out of all the “capable UU women leaders, female rabbis, nuns (Buddhist AND Catholic), female bishops, and more” out there. It was, I wrote, “another reminder that…women are often absent at the interfaith table—even though on the ground, they are often the most avid and effective peacemakers and bridge-builders. Representations MATTERS.”
Will you be surprised when I tell you another high school acquaintance commented on it, cutting into me for accusing the men of lying and purposely trying to exclude women? And suggesting that it’s not important to have women’s voices in a conversation about faith?
Deep breath, Abigail. Deep breath. Compassion. Call-in.
Sheath the social justice warrior sword. Breathe out the phrases of “upholding the patriarchy” and “perpetrating oppression.” Breathe in peace, and calm, and the Compassion Practice. Understand where a young Southern man’s anger might be coming from. Engage empathically.
I’m not going to say that what I responded with was perfect. Or even that it changed his mind, at all. Or even that I should have responded at all. But I’m still trying. And still wondering–how can we use this global, stunning technology of the internet in a way that is liberative, transformative, and–perhaps the hardest–compassionate?